We were a bit taken aback by Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week recounting the damage done by the frenzy of speculation about the prospects for the platelet aggregation inhibitor prasugrel.
Taurel takes financial journalists to task for trading in “leaks and rumors where scientific data are concerned” and calling on “would-be pundits” who “have not had firsthand exposure to the scientific results or specialized knowledge under discussion” to “qualify your comments if you must make them at all.”
Its not that we disagree with Taurel. Like most self-respecting journalists, we are only too happy to join in any critique of the sloppy practices of our competitors (since we of course are the exception that proves the rule, right?).
No, what took us aback about the piece was its premise: the almost quaint notion that pharmaceutical companies can somehow put the genie back in the bottle and have the final say in when or how information about their products—even unapproved products like prasugrel—will be disseminated to the public.
Taurel’s argument, in effect, is that journalists, analysts and investors should have waited patiently for the release of the pivotal trial data on prasugrel (the TRITON study) at the American Heart Association meeting November 4, rather than engaging in a frenzy of speculation based on news that Lilly had suspended two other trials of the drug. Lilly decided to report that data there, and in a companion piece published by The New England Journal of Medicine.
Lilly, of course, couldn’t release the data early because it committed to an embargo prior to the AHA presentation. “Such guarantees of exclusivity are not only common, but also appropriate, in focusing expert attention on important research,” Taurel writes. “A definitive source and a ‘zero hour’ of first-hand disclosure for complex scientific data help to limit misinformation.”
Ah, the good old days. Things used to work that way for sure. But in the era of the internet, clinical trial registries, managed care claims databases, FDA drug safety newsletters, and emerging active surveillance systems, it is simply no longer possible for drug sponsors to hope to control the information flow about their products. (Not too mention the unbelievable proliferation of would-be pundits known as bloggers.)
In this case, Taurel laments, “10 days before our ‘zero hour,’ word leaked out, causing us to confirm that the two prasugrel trials had been suspended, although our promises to NEJM and AHA prevented us from explaining why.”
The truth, as Taurel explains, was that prasugrel performed very well in the pivotal trial, but that there were “three small subgroups of patients” in whom a risk of excessive bleeding appeared to outweigh the benefits. “Based on the small chance that patients in the three identified subgroups might be given prasugrel and experience serious bleeding, we advised our researchers to suspend the two trials pending a review,” Taurel writes.
But the damage was done. “The media entered a feeding frenzy, catered by commentators on Wall Street and elsewhere who speculated that prasugrel posed broad risks and had probably failed its major trial. Our stock began its trip south and, more seriously, some doctors and patients were left with false impressions.” Lilly’s shares recovered somewhat after the data were finally reported on November 4.
We might quibble a bit with choosing prasugrel as the case to make this argument—claims of patient harm seem overdone here when we are talking about a drug not yet approved by FDA. Commercial harm, yes. Harm to Lilly’s investors, yes. But it is a bit of stretch to say patients were harmed.
But still, Taurel is right about the potential for media feeding frenzies to cause tremendous harm. Its happened before, for sure. Maybe Avandia is an example, or even Baychol—cases where coverage of an unexpected side effect led many patients to discontinue treatment on their own, leaving at least the possibility that more harm was done by untreated diabetes or high cholesterol than by the adverse events in question.
Even so, Taurel sounds a bit like Lear raging against the storm. We understand his concern, but it is hard to imagine any way he or any other industry CEO can reverse the winds.
We aren’t the only ones who think that. Plenty of smart people in government and industry are talking about the revolutionary changes in information flow about medicine—including a whole bunch of executives at Lilly. In fact, though this is impossible to handicap, we would be willing to bet that Lilly is at the forefront of recognizing and adapting to a world where the pharmaceutical company sponsor is no longer at the center of the information flow about drug products.
We have heard several Lilly executives speak publicly and privately on this very theme. During a panel discussion on clinical trial policy at the University of North Carolina in February, one Lilly executive talked about the move towards active surveillance as potentially engendering a “Wikipharmacy” model in which product use information is no longer generated by FDA and the sponsor in labeling negotiations, but rather by a global community of users exchanging information on real-world experiences with the drug.
And Taurel himself has talked about it. During a policy address at the Cleveland Clinic early this year, Taurel focused on the revolutionary potential of healthcare IT advances. He even talked about the importance—and benefits—of public access to data once jealously guarded by manufacturers.
“For businesses that generate health data and new knowledge, it’s time to learn the benefits of openness," Taurel said in Cleveland. He went on:
"We need to open our minds to the notion that electronic outcomes data – once the privacy of individual patients is protected – represent a legitimate ‘commons,’ a resource to which access should in most cases be widespread and easy.”
“That’s not to ignore the fact that great effort and expense goes into collecting many types of health information. Certainly at Lilly, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on clinical trials. But the key insight in our situation, and I think it applies quite broadly, is that unlike most other assets, health information actually becomes more valuable the more it is used, studied, and applied. It does not depreciate.”
So what gives with the Journal editorial? Did Lilly decide that openness is wrong? Hardly. Taurel even repeats his argument that openness is critical for industry: “Trust hinges on our openness in sharing everything we know about who should use our products—along with when, how and at what dose—and who should not.”
What we are really seeing here is not a vain attempt by a pharma company to turn back the storm, but an example of one way to try to advance against the wind.
The frenzy around prasugrel hurt Lilly, but it also provided an opportunity for the CEO to talk about the product in a prominent forum. The fact is that Lilly (and its partner, Daiichi Sankyo) plan to submit a new drug application based on TRITON to FDA before the end of the year. Anything Lilly can do to shape the climate for that review is critical.
When you look at it that way, maybe the most important line in the editorial is the sentence at the end of the fifth paragraph, citing a quote from the Journal’s earlier reporting on prasugrel: “If you can't get a drug on the market with that kind of data, we should stop developing drugs.” That is a message not just for business and science reporters, but for FDA reviewers as well.
So will Lilly get this drug on the market with this kind of data? Coming Monday, one would-be pundit will share his thoughts on what it will take to make that happen.